Is ‘culture fit’ still important?

‘Unfortunately, you did not get the role as we felt that you are not the right fit for our culture.’

At some point in your working career, you might have been rejected for a job with something along these lines. Or maybe as an HR professional or manager, you had to be the one delivering this difficult news at least once. While this is often used by recruiters to prevent further probing from unsuccessful candidates, this answer leaves many hopefuls confused: what does that even mean? Was I too shy? Too loud? Too…different?

diverse employees culture fit

So why do employers want candidates to match their culture?

Research has shown that a strong organisational culture points to many business benefits, such as employee engagement, productivity and retention. 82% of respondents in Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends in 2016 even said that ‘culture is a potential competitive advantage’. It’s no surprise then that companies spend a lot of time and resources in developing and maintaining their culture. And employee buy-in is a big factor in whether your company culture flourishes or not; this is easier if the person joining the company is already compatible with your existing company culture.

The origins of ‘culture fit’ and its dangers

By hiring people that already match the company culture, employees are able to adjust to the role quicker, get along with colleagues a lot easier and are more satisfied and likelier to stay with the company longer, as first proposed in a study by UC Berkeley Professor Jennifer Chatman. And with bad hiring decisions and poor onboarding processes costing businesses lots of time and money, employers look to culture fit as a possible remedy when considering new hires.

But ‘culture fit’ is a generally broad term with huge scope, and an undefined notion of culture fit poses several issues:

1. Unchecked bias

Without a clear definition of what makes a person the right culture fit for a company, more often than not, recruiters/hiring managers rely on gut feeling. And with gut feeling, it’s easy for unconscious bias to impact hiring decisions. And it doesn’t stop there. Other employment decisions like project assignments, promotions or benefit packages can be affected by bias, too.

‘The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone,’ Katherine Klein, Wharton management professor.

2. Homogenous working environment

People gravitate towards those similar to them, so overemphasising culture fit runs the risk of creating a homogenous workforce. We know from research that companies with a diverse leadership perform better financially than those without it. The Black Lives Matter movement and gender pay gap reporting have put companies under the spotlight on what they’re doing to promote diversity in the workplace and to do better. Continuing employment practices that adhere to outdated notions of ‘culture fit’ can hinder the actions necessary to encourage diversity and inclusion in businesses.

3. Big echo chamber

Employing only culture-fit people might create a lively or pleasant atmosphere, where it’s easy to grab a drink with colleagues every Friday evening, but having only like-minded individuals can easily lead to having a big echo chamber. While we all want to avoid negative workplace conflict, constructive discussions and exploring abstract ideas are important for business innovation. A lack of diverse opinions and fresh perspectives can be limiting, and may prevent your business from adapting to upcoming challenges. If you want your company to continue to grow and profit, you need to build your workforce with people who can do that, rather than building a ‘comfortable’ team.

Moving away from ‘culture fit’?

The current COVID-19 crisis has changed the way we work, which has also impacted how we look at company culture.

1. Straying away from a monolithic culture

Whether companies intended to or not, their company culture is going through a transformation. With many employees having to work from home, grabbing a drink at the pub after work or enjoying the game room together in the office is not so relevant anymore. It’s likely that employees have found their own ways to stay connected by creating social groups within the company, and ‘sub-cultures’ may be emerging.

2. Covering the basics

This doesn’t mean that core company values should be forgotten. Employees homeworking due to COVID-19 felt more supported when their company ramped up their focus on communication, employee welfare and agility. This is because beyond the perks and frills, what employees value the most is simple: feeling trusted, connected, valued and that their work matters to the wider business.

3. Focusing on attitudes and abilities

With companies having to adapt in the face of uncertainty, there may be an increasing need to focus on candidates with the right skills and mindset over culture fit. While employers have always valued skills, the skills gap in the workforce and the current crisis mean that employers can’t afford to make hiring mistakes. They need people with the relevant skillset or those with a growth mindset that will be able to reskill themselves as required.

It’s important to not over rely on culture fit and gut feeling, and to only consider it as part of an overall recruitment assessment. Culture is very important for the success and growth of a business, but we need to be very mindful about how it translates into our employment practices.

How important is culture fit to your company?

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